Classic Kanchipuram to modern weaves: Tamil Nadu's silk sarees, then and now

While Tamil Nadu’s Kanchipuram sarees find a prized place in saree collections across the country, the state is also known for its Koorainadu silk sarees and light-weight silks, among others.
Kanchipuram silk saree
Kanchipuram silk saree
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In India, silk sarees serve as a cultural and fashion statement – six yards of beauty, and elegance. Every state boasts of a silk saree that is unique in weave and design, and for Tamil Nadu it is the Kanchipuram silk saree. This distinctive saree finds a prized place in wardrobes across the country for its classic look, luxurious feel and the history that comes with each design. And in Kanchipuram, the city of a thousand temples, weavers meticulously create the sarees in vibrant colours, embellished with motifs and a zari (border) made of fine gold or silk thread, to be worn at weddings and celebratory functions. 

Chennai-based textile researcher Sreemathy Mohan says that the designs for Kanchipuram sarees draw inspiration from historical and cultural influences. Take for example the Gopuram (temple tower) bordered sarees.  “These borders are famously known for being inspired by the town’s architecture and the towering Gopurams of temples in particular,” says Sreemathy. In this quintessential Kanchipuram saree, threads in resplendent colours are used to create line designs and buttas against a complex Korvai border to form rows of large interlocked triangles to replicate the structure of Gopurams. In a Korvai weave, the colour of the body of the saree is in contrast to its border.

She also points out that animals, birds, nature influence the motifs, designs and colours used in Kanchipuram sarees. In her blog the Indian Saree Journal, Sreemathy observes that the use of jewel-toned colours has been inspired by nature – from the dark blue borrowed from heavy rain clouds and the turquoise with a tinge of green from the peacock to the verdant Ilai pachai (leaf green) and killi pachai (parrot green). Then you have chilli red, mango yellow, mustard coloured Kanchipuram sarees, where the exact shade has been inspired by fruits and vegetables. In the Ganga Jamuna sarees – named after the two rivers – the borders on either side of the saree are in different colours.

Floral and animal motifs are also found on the body or border of the saree. If the design is part of the zari or border, the gold thread used to weave the design into the fabric is as bright as sunlight. “The different motifs woven in supplementary warp or weft threads along the borders enhance the mundhanai or pallu. These designs are usually small and repetitive. The repeating patterns are descriptive, taken from nature, items of jewellery or everyday objects, and fit well into the overall design. Sometimes the body of the saree is adorned with buttas or buttis, depicting a floating design element,” Sreemathy writes in her blog.  

Silk saree with peacock motifs on the pallu. Source: Sthree Creatives/ Instagram

Silk saree with one side border. Source: Sthree_Creatives/Instagram

Kanchipuram silk saree with Yaali Butta. Description: SthreeCreatives/ Instagram

Delicately woven gold zari motifs that replicate the patterns of flowers such as the thazhampoo, the yellow flower with sharp leaves grown along river banks, thamarai (lotus), the swirling creeper kodi visiri and malli moggu (jasmine bud) are seen on pallus and borders.

Figures inspired by mythology also find a place in the flowing silk sarees from Kanchipuram. Yaali, a mythical animal that is part-lion and part-elephant, Annapakshi, a water bird popular in Hindu iconography and literature and Ganda Berunda (two-headed eagle) are some examples. Then you have motifs of elephants and horses galloping along the border, as well as magnificent lions stalking the silk, harking back to insignia from ancient kingdoms.  

A number of Kanchipuram silk sarees shimmer with unique diamond mesh designs, known as kuyilkann and mayilkann. The design replicates the eyes of kuyil or cuckoo and mayil (peacock).

Beyond Kanchipuram silks 

Not only in Kanchipuram, over the years, weaving clusters have sprung across Tamil Nadu. This has given rise to silk sarees of various designs synonymous with these locations, according to Gopal, the founder of Chennai-based silk apparel store Shakundala's. Koorainadu silk, for instance, comes from Kumbakonam and is used to make Koorai Pudavai which is worn at weddings. In many Tamil communities, the brides wear a handwoven cotton saree that is sometimes dipped in turmeric during the wedding ceremony. However, over the years, a range of designs in bright red and white stripes and checkered patterns made out of Koorainadu silk have become popular and replaced these.

Silk sarees from Shakundala's 

Silk Saree from Dakshinam Sarees

Kattam (grid) and Kodu (stripes) sarees made using two to three complementary or contrasting colours of yarn in both the warp and weft are popular types of sarees made out of Koorainadu silk. 

Popular designs and silk weaves from other parts of the country have also found their way to the state and are being made here. “These types of silk sarees were introduced when migrants who moved to Tamil Nadu brought their art with them,” says Sreemathy. Sarees with Ikat design (a dyeing technique that originates from Indonesia and is famous in Orissa) are made in a small cluster in Palani. She adds, “Tie-and-dye sarees became popular after Saurashtra textile sellers came to Tamil Nadu. Kalamkari designs have been widely seen here ever since the Vijayanagara empire ruled this area. King Serfoji II Bhonsle is said to have introduced the idea of borrowing elements from Thanjavur painting and embossing it on to silk sarees. This is also believed to be the time when Pipli Applique work from Orissa, gained popularity in Tamil Nadu,” says Sreemathy. She also adds that Saurashtrian weavers in Tamil Nadu specialise in Devendra art silk sarees that use silk blended with viscose and cotton, making them lighter.

Koorainadu saree. Source: Stree Creatives/ Instagram

Weaver weaving a silk saree. Source: Dakshinam Sarees 

Weaver weaving a silk saree. Source: Dakshinam Sarees

Silk sarees with a twist

Lightweight silk sarees are particularly popular for their functionality and comfort factor. Gopal, who belongs to a family of artisan weavers from Kanchipuram, says, “Lightweight fabrics, no zari silks and pastel shades have become popular among younger customers. Earlier, a weaving cluster would only produce a specific type of saree. Nowadays, we find silk cotton sarees replicating the grandeur of Kanchipuram sarees.”

While the Kanchipuram silk saree is a classic garment, Yogesh of Chennai-headquartered Dakshinam Sarees, feels that some update in design is required for the younger generation. He works directly with weavers to create sarees that fit today’s lifestyle. “We aim to create a feedback loop between the customers and creators. There is a huge gap because previous generations would directly buy sarees from the artisans. However, now they develop new designs based on the feedback we get from customers. Weavers usually come to our centres on a weekly basis where the designs are discussed with the team. We also customise sarees,” Yogesh tells TNM.  

Their collection includes a luxurious Kanchipuram saree shimmering with an elaborate elephant buttas and vaira oosi (diamond needle) design. However, instead of the usual vibrant red or green, this saree comes in pastel pink. In another Dakshinam piece, Kalamkari patterns meet red Kanchipuram silk. The patterns seamlessly flow into the pallu and border that is bejewelled with gold zari. The traditional leaf motifs add a touch of shimmer.

There is also the off-white cotton and linen saree with a grey silk border and light, subtly patterned silk sarees. Yogesh says that these kinds of designs are preferred by customers looking for elegant corporate wear. He adds that as times change, silk sarees have to go beyond being just wedding wear in order to stay relevant. 

Kalamkari design on red Kanchipuram silk. Source: Dakshinam Sarees

Traditional silk saree. Description: Dakshinam Sarees

Off-white cotton and linen saree with a grey silk border. Description: Dakshinam Sarees

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